How big hair defined the decade you went to high school

Written by:
September 13, 2020
Bettmann // Getty Images

How big hair defined the decade you went to high school

Adolescence represents one of the most significant periods of self-identity. Famed developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson said the teenage years are specifically punctuated by that quest, which he described featuring "identity vs. role confusion." No longer children but not quite adults, adolescents work through their personal goals, belief systems, and values while battling against their lack of autonomy. Without the ability to express themselves with careers, acquisitions, or other outlets, a vast majority of teenagers use exaggerated outward appearances that often subscribe to a particular stereotype to fit into a specific role.

High school students over the last century have divided themselves by visibly striking groups: the hippies, jocks, preppies, punks, emo kids, hipsters, and so forth. From fashion and musical tastes to hairstyles, teenagers wear their identities quite literally on their sleeves and heads. These trends reflect the cultural backdrops from which they grew: pixie cuts and fedoras during the Roaring Twenties; long hair and Afros during the '60s, and the big-hair trends of the '80s all typify the world in which these people lived; whether constrained and conservative (the '50s) or wild and subversive (the '70s).

In this way, it's possible to chart American history by fashion trends and hairdos. Never ones to disappoint, the folks at The Pudding seized on this concept to use AI deep learning classification to analyze a dataset of more than 30,000 high school yearbook photos spanning 1930 to 2013 in a study called The Big Data of Big Hair, published in 2019. The study identified the median hair density for high school students in every year; median hair density is a measure of how far out a hairstyle extends from the bearer's head. Here, Stacker has included the densities for the beginning, middle, and end of each decade in the study, separated into hairstyles associated with boys and those associated with girls.

The data is decidedly Anglocentric, which is representative of census data which shows the U.S. white population comprised more than 80% of the total population until 2000. As demographics in the U.S. have changed in the last few decades, we have seen more representative, mainstream hairstyles (and associated products) change, as well. It may take longer for schools to catch up to these changes: A New Jersey wrestler in 2019 was forced to cut his dreadlocks before a match; while hairstyles like braid extensions have been called out for violating dress codes.

Keep reading to see how big (and cropped) hairstyles accentuated the times from which they grew.

[Pictured: Farrah Fawcett.]

1930s for boys: Slicked back

- Median hair density:
--- Beginning of decade ('0): 0.138
--- Middle of decade ('5): 0.130
--- End of decade ('9): 0.125

Men’s conservative, slicked-back hairstyles were fitting for the times that followed on the heels of the stock market crash and the start of the Great Depression. Teenagers’ hairstyles of the decade reflected the overwhelming look of the era: conforming to an idealist concept of behavioral do-rightness.

[Pictured: Clark Gable.]

1930s for girls: Elegant waves

- Median hair density:
--- Beginning of decade ('0): 0.203
--- Middle of decade ('5): 0.232
--- End of decade ('9): 0.246

Young women’s hair in the 1930s gave an insight into the rebellion of the era: long, curly locks belying the overwhelming pressure young women felt to keep quiet and conform. Hair of this era worked against silently agreed-upon notions of what good girls ought to look like, functioning as a silent protest of sorts.

Black girls’ hair in the 1930s took cues from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s with updos, bobs, and similar wave treatments that were popular with their white classmates.

[Pictured: Jean Harlow.]

1940s for boys: Conservative crew cut

- Median hair density:
--- Beginning of decade ('0): 0.125
--- Middle of decade ('5): 0.122
--- End of decade ('9): 0.123

Most boys in the ‘40s followed the same, conservative style of the decade: longer on top, short on the sides and back. Some guys went the extra mile and used styling products to accentuate a side part or create a dramatic wave.

[Pictured: John F. Kennedy.]

1940s for girls: Half-up, half-down

- Median hair density:
--- Beginning of decade ('0): 0.249
--- Middle of decade ('5): 0.256
--- End of decade ('9): 0.255

Data follows the documented historical trend of hair that was kept half-up, half-down. Other styles of the time included glamorous waves, side parts that offered mysterious eye cover, a la actresses like Veronica Lake.

[Pictured: Lana Turner, Hedy Lamarr, and Judy Garland, 1941.]

1950s for boys: Flat-tops

- Median hair density:
--- Beginning of decade ('0): 0.123
--- Middle of decade ('5): 0.117
--- End of decade ('9): 0.114

The ‘50s were an iconic decade representative to various groups of people of intolerance and repression. Flattops—a stoic look of absolutes—were all the rage in the 1950s and indicative of what many consider to be the most controlled big-hair era.

[Pictured: Johnny Unitas.]

1950s for girls: Poodle cut

- Median hair density:
--- Beginning of decade ('0): 0.254
--- Middle of decade ('5): 0.234
--- End of decade ('9): 0.236

The poodle cut was just what it sounded like: a big top and big sides, all controlled, all the time. Indicative of the ‘50s, the poodle cut was big—yet under control, not a hair out of place. It was opulence and conservatism; an echo of the era the big hairstyle was born into.

[Pictured: Lucille Ball.]

1960s for boys: Quiff

- Median hair density:
--- Beginning of decade ('0): 0.114
--- Middle of decade ('5): 0.133
--- End of decade ('9): 0.163

The quiff: a mashup of the flat top, pompadour, mohawk, and (eventually) ’90s heartthrob styles, offered an effortless appearance and standard to high-standing short-hair looks. The quiff borrowed from carefree concepts but stayed rooted in a style decidedly less freewheeling than those later in the decade.

[Pictured: James Dean.]

1960s for girls: Bobs

- Median hair density:
--- Beginning of decade ('0): 0.237
--- Middle of decade ('5): 0.260
--- End of decade ('9): 0.276

Bobs offered a return to conformity on the cusp of women’s rights. A call to innocence, control, and form, the look would be short-lived and represent the end of an era.

1970s for boys: Side-comb

- Median hair density:
--- Beginning of decade ('0): 0.172
--- Middle of decade ('5): 0.206
--- End of decade ('9): 0.217

Men’s side-combs provided a cover of sorts that belied the hippie generation but suggested a bridge into a new era of music and cultural awareness. Less sharp than styles of the decade prior and more open to interpretation, the side comb set a more fluid standard of the decade and cultural evolution to come.

[Pictured: Robert Redford.]

1970s for girls: Long waves

- Median hair density:
--- Beginning of decade ('0): 0.280
--- Middle of decade ('5): 0.290
--- End of decade ('9): 0.295

Girls’ hairstyles echoed the anti-war, anti-establishment era they were born into. Loose, uncontrolled, and unstyled hairdos were representative of the times when young people defied being put into boxes of what should or shouldn’t be.

[Pictured: Farrah Fawcett.]

1980s for boys: Big and parted

- Median hair density:
--- Beginning of decade ('0): 0.216
--- Middle of decade ('5): 0.197
--- End of decade ('9): 0.175

Men’s hair in the ’80s, although remembered for Afros and spiked styles, were shadows of the looks young women were pulling off at the same time. Overall, guys sported big and parted looks that defied convention in a controlled way while women pushed boundaries with new and (big) unforeseen looks.

[Pictured: Don Johnson, 1989.]

1980s for girls: Permed and feathered

- Median hair density:
--- Beginning of decade ('0): 0.297
--- Middle of decade ('5): 0.302
--- End of decade ('9): 0.299

Second only to the ‘70s, the ‘80s understandably represent the biggest hair period for women in the last century. Less afraid than ever to speak up, own their own space, and be their own people, the 1980s represent a new era for women to express themselves as big, bold, and with ideas completely independently of men.

[Pictured: Christina Applegate.]

1990s for boys: Jonathan Taylor Thomas hair

- Median hair density:
--- Beginning of decade ('0): 0.169
--- Middle of decade ('5): 0.151
--- End of decade ('9): 0.144

Young men in the ‘90s understandably mimicked heartthrobs Joey McIntyre, Jason Priestley, and Leonardo DiCaprio. Controlled, long manes were all the rage and showed the sense of procured feminism that was popular at the time—at once objectifying and reeling in men’s unruly locks.

[Pictured: Jonathan Taylor Thomas.]

1990s for girls: Big hair, side part

- Median hair density:
--- Beginning of decade ('0): 0.297
--- Middle of decade ('5): 0.286
--- End of decade ('9): 0.277

Women (mostly) dropped bangs in the ‘90s, going instead for deep side parts and a return to long hair. The ‘90s represented a confusing era of intellectual sexuality, unbridled freedom, and a call to wildness unfettered by decades-old cultural norms.

[Pictured: Jennifer Aniston.]

2000s for boys: Close crops

- Median hair density:
--- Beginning of decade ('0): 0.143
--- Middle of decade ('5): 0.143
--- End of decade ('9): 0.147

In the 2000s, boys had the shortest average hair length since the ‘60s with a decade punctuated by buzz cuts, crew cuts, bald heads, and close crops. Coming out of a period of relative peace, average hair length increased as the United States dove into another war—following a trend of non-conformity.

[Pictured: Leonardo DiCaprio.]

2000s for girls: Big hair, side part

- Median hair density:
--- Beginning of decade ('0): 0.275
--- Middle of decade ('5): 0.268
--- End of decade ('9): 0.263

Girls in the 2000s hearkened back to some hippie roots with long hair, no bangs, and middle or slightly off-centered parts. As with the young men of the times, women’s hairstyles reflected a cultural sense of “coming as you are.”

[Pictured: Alicia Silverstone.]

Trending Now